It’s common to give electronics and other toys as gifts over the holiday season. If you have or have ever had kids, you know that part of family’s celebrations after gift-opening will include your quickly having to decipher the How-To’s for their gifts.

Many of my fondest childhood holiday memories were peppered with the strains of my mom and dad hurriedly trying to get through the instruction manual – peppering the air with some even more peppery language – as I impatiently sat there waiting for the magic to begin.

It’s no less the case for my 5-year-old, whose dad is, thankfully, the kind of guy who seems to welcome the challenge of self-assembly. I, on the other hand, stay far, far away while this is happening, knowing that my attempt to ‘help’ if he hits a snag will be met with our own generation’s saucy vernacular.

But I do help by filing all of the instructions (often along with the still-unsent warranty cards), for those inevitable situations where I have to look up what type of light bulb will be required for that &^$#@ toy she got for her birthday 6 months ago which has now stopped *^%$ working.

And this is where I found what I think is the 2009 award-winning example of badly-designed toy instructions:

Picture this as an 8 x 11" page, turned sideways

While it doesn’t use any crazy or complex formatting, this gem delivers most of the first-level instructions, like the ones on the righthand side of this sample, in 8 point font. Then, as you continue, the type gets smaller and smaller…down to what looks like 4-point type (as in the lefthand page above).

So why is small type such a problem?

Reading research says that for a public document, the typeface should be at least 12 points. With sans-serif fonts like the one used in this  case, you can often get away with going down to 11 points, but still risk losing some of those older or farsighted  folks who will have to squint or straighten their arms to hold the paper at a comfortable reading distance.

In my view, unless you have no choice – such as on drug product packaging (where you could produce a larger-print insert in any event) – there’s no good reason to shrink the type below that size.

One might think there are economic reasons for their design choice, such as that they wanted to keep paper and printing costs low, or make the manual seem less cumbersome to readers. But if you look at the scan here, there’s clearly lots of unused whitespace that would better be employed raising the type size. This is especially true when you consider how many more people are having kids in their 40s and 50s; and then think of the vision challenges for their grandparents, aunts and uncles!

Technical writers often lament the fact that people using products ask, er, unnecessary questions. Their acronym for the common response to such questions is ‘RTFM!’, which is short for ‘Read The ****ing Manual!’ I challenge those writers to try that in this case. Unless they have 20/20 vision, they’re going to find themselves doing more with this bleeping manual than just reading it.